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Biden’s support on Capitol Hill grimly uncertain as Democrats argue in private

By LISA MASCARO, MARY CLARE JALONICK and FARNOUSH AMIRI, Associated Press
Published: July 9, 2024, 2:28pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The mood on Capitol Hill turned grimly uncertain Tuesday as Democrats wrestled over President Joe Biden’s re-election and the extraordinary question before them — whether to stand behind his candidacy or push the president to bow out amid concerns over his ability to lead them to victory.

House and Senate Democrats met privately with tensions running high. The conversation was “dour” and “sad” in the House, lawmakers said, as they discussed their party leader who emphatically refuses to step aside and implored them in a sharply worded letter to refocus from him to the threat posed by Republican Donald Trump. In the Senate, where Biden spent a storied career, they said even less.

What could become a time for Democrats to bolster their president, who remains the favorite for some despite his poor debate performance and public appearances, instead fell deeper into crisis over real fears they could lose the White House and Congress and watch the rise of a second term Trump.

“We had a caucus meeting today that gave members an opportunity to express themselves in a candid and comprehensive fashion,” said House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, “and those discussions will continue throughout the balance of the week.”

It’s a remarkable moment for the president and his party with Democrats in Congress seriously questioning Biden’s place at the top of the ticket, weeks before the Democratic National Convention to nominate him for a second term.

Biden’s supporters have been emerging as the most vocal, and at least one key House Democrat reversed course to publicly support the president. But no agreement was in sight and an undercurrent of dissent runs strong. As Senate Democrats stayed silent in public, Biden’s political future was the remarkable matter in question.

Asked if there was any consensus, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, one of Biden’s closest supporters said, the “consensus is that Donald Trump poses a threat and the focus should be on that.”

In the private House meeting Tuesday, there was a growing concern that Biden remaining in the race means the election will center on his age issues instead of Trump, according to one of the people in the room.

At least 20 Democratic lawmakers stood up to speak during the nearly two-hour session in what for many is an existential moment for their country considering a second Trump presidency.

Most of those who spoke wanted Biden to end his candidacy, said another person granted anonymity to discuss the meeting.

Among them was Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who leads a contingent of military veterans in the House and is among the six Democrats who have publicly called for Biden to step aside.

Still others dropped their private concerns in order to back Biden, for now. “He said he’s going to remain in, he’s our candidate, and we’re going to support him,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, on CNN. Over the weekend was among those privately saying Biden should not run.

“I’m staying with Papa,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.. He said his constituents understand what the country went through during the COVID-19 pandemic and how Biden led through the crisis. “He was fit then and he’s fit now.”

Many Democrats worry that not only is the presidency in jeopardy but also their own down-ballot races for control of the House and Senate — and the party’s ability to stop Trump and the conservative Project 2025 agenda with its plans to weaken the federal government.

“He just has to step down because he can’t win,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.

Quigley said, “The fighting spirit and pride and courage that served the country so well four years ago, that helped Joe Biden win, will bring the ticket down this time.”

One Democratic lawmaker who declined to be named said afterward that people love Biden, but there’s a real sense of helplessness over the situation and the threat of the consequences if Democrats lose the elections. The lawmakers said the situation was “sad.”

After a closed-door Senate lunch meeting, most senators were reluctant to say either that they unequivocally support Biden or that they want to see him step aside.

“I think we should do our best job to defeat Trump and I’m really excited about it,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

While at least six House Democrats have publicly called on Biden to end his candidacy, no Senate Democrat has publicly called for Biden to leave the race.

Many senators simply avoided questions about the president or his health, instead saying there was unanimity in the room that Trump needs to be defeated.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York repeated, “I’ve said, I’m with Joe.”

Some are turning more serious attention to Vice President Kamala Harris as an alternative.

Rep. Jared Huffman of California who is leading the House Democrats’ task force fighting Project 2025, said Democrats need to get back to confronting Trump and can win the election with Biden at the top of the ticket.

But he said if Biden’s decision to stay on changes “that’s not the end of the world, in my view.”

“I think we’ve got an excellent next up in the vice president. She’s good, and she’s ready to go.”

Huffman said Democrats, unlike their House GOP counterparts, can “have principled disagreements without fighting like ferrets in a phone booth.”

Republicans face their own history-making political situation, poised to nominate a former president who is the first ever to be convicted of a felony — in a hush money case — and who faces federal criminal indictments, including the effort to overturn the 2020 election he lost to Biden.

After a slow initial response to Biden’s dismal debate, the White House and campaign team are working more furiously now to end the drama in part by gathering the president’s most loyal supporters to speak out.

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The president met virtually late Monday with the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members are core to Biden’s coalition, thanking them for having his back, and assuring them he would have theirs in a second term. He was also to meet with the Congressional Progressive Caucus whose leaders along with those from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have said publicly they are sticking with the president.

One member of party leadership, Rep. Lori Trahan, said in a statement Wednesday that she has been meeting with Biden voters in her Massachusetts district who have “real concerns” about his ability to beat Trump. “I share those concerns,” she said.

But Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and an leader in the Congressional Black Caucus, said that the party is united behind Biden as their nominee.

Rep. Steven Cohen, D-Tenn., was asked if Democrats were on the same page, and responded, “We are not even in the same book.”

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